By Rebecca J. Lester
Ethos, Vol. 23, No. 2. (1995)
Introduction: In the cloistered halls of medieval nunneries, something strange was happening to women’s bodies. In late 14th-century Europe, reports abounded of religious women who could sustain themselves for years on nothing but the Eucharist – no other food passed their lips. Many also supposedly possessed amazing and miraculous powers of levitation and stigmata; were able to produce oils, wine, or other substances from their pores; and maintained a special communion with Jesus Christ, revealed through elaborate, vivid visions and supernatural signs. They appeared to defy the limits of human suffering through extreme physical austerities and to transcend the mortal world through miraculous talents. Their asceticism and self-inflicted suffering amazed and bewildered all, with divine grace as the only plausible explanation. These women represented holy miracles in the flesh and were heralded as the epitome of penitential devotion.
News of the amazing mystics spread throughout Europe, and many female ascetics developed almost cult-like followings. Tales of miraculous fasting – and the resulting corporeal manipulations – became central to religious writings of the time as “evidence” of the power of Christ, and served as important tools for the conversion of “heathens to the faith.”